Musicals can be driven mainly by character development (“She Loves Me”), by settings (“Cabaret”), by physical action (“West Side Story”), by pacing (“The Producers”), by special effects (“Starlight Express”). But “Saturday Night Fever” belongs to the rare category of musicals driven mostly by atmosphere.
The characters, even less complex here than in the 1977 film that inspired it, can’t be taken seriously; they revolve in our vision like horses on a melancholy merry-go-round, talking of forced marriages and pregnancies and broken hearts, and none but Tony Manero stay in front of us long enough to be three-dimensional.
Yet when the disco beat throbs, bodies groove and words come out in Brooklyn accents (fairly good ones in Theatre Charlotte’s production), we’re sucked back into a hot New York summer four decades ago. This is the only musical in recent memory where a single iconic costume – Tony’s vanilla ice-cream suit – gets a loud “ahhhhh” from the audience.
Do you recall the story? Tony (Rixey Terry) works in a paint store by day, copes with disapproving parents by night and finds solace only at the disco. His regular partner, unglamorous Annette (Ava Smith), has a crush on him, but he has eyes for high-toned Stephanie (Susannah Upchurch). Meanwhile, he pals around with neighborhood guys, including the hapless and indecisive Bobby (T.J. Kapur).
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The musical deviates from the film in four significant ways. First, the characters have to sing; this works best when the rich-toned Smith mourns a failed love in “If I Can’t Have You” or a clubgoer (showstopping Dani Burke) burns down the house in “Disco Inferno.”
Second, the music is an odd hodgepodge of these famous numbers done live, recordings taken directly from the film soundtrack, interpolated new songs and ambient music. (How strange to hear “I Like the Night Life” without lyrics.)
Third, the tone has been softened: no attempted rape, and the death of one character is purely an accident, not a half-suicidal mishap.
Most importantly, Tony has to dance well enough to deserve his title as disco king; editors can’t cut together a performance, as they partly did for John Travolta. Lisa Blanton gives Terry challenging choreography, and he seizes the stage in the solo “You Should Be Dancing.”
Director Ron Law realized a story about people between 18 and 20 is best served by young actors. So Smith, Upchurch and Kapur are in high school; Terry isn’t Tony’s age (18) but could pass; Jocelyn Cabaniss, who sings passionately as Joey’s girl, is a CPCC freshman. They understand their characters’ longings, frustrations, insecurities and misguided energy.